You were at work. Things were just okay. A landscaper pokes a shovel through your buried Internet cables or tree branches drop and destroy a neighborhood’s Internet. Or the unexplained happens and the little green light on the cable modem turns red. You are, as the sailors say when a ship’s engine stops, dead in the water. What now?
Most remote work depends on access to a reliable internet connection, and for many people, especially hourly or hourly employees, no internet means no pay. That means finding a way to get back online quickly, at home or elsewhere. The goal, given the outage, is to stay in business, remain in service, and have a reliable backup plan after the internet outage swear words. It’s for this reason that a bug-out bag with all the cables, gear, and even a sweater (for unregulated air conditioning) can get you back to work in no time.
Stay connected at home
The easiest way to navigate a temporary outage is to tether from your smartphone. All modern smartphones have a Wi-Fi hotspot feature that allows you to share their data connection with other devices, although many phone plans limit its usefulness.
You can enable your hotspot in your phone’s Settings menu. Search on an iPhone for Personal Hotspot in the main Settings menu. On Samsung phones, go to Settings > Connections > Mobile hotspot and tetheringand on other android phones it is often in Settings > Network & Internet > Hotspot & Tethering. Change or copy the password, then connect your laptop to the phone’s Wi-Fi SSID and you’re good to go.
Even “unlimited” phone plans will lower your hotspot speed after a certain point. That point is usually independent of your overall high-speed data cap and can range from about 5 GB per month to over 40 GB. After that, you are limited to 3G speeds or lower. Transferring large files can burn your hotspot limit, but the real killer is video calls: a one-hour Zoom meeting can use more than a gigabyte of data. If you make a lot of calls, plan to dial in with a phone until your internet is available again. All major video calling platforms support dial-in numbers, although you may need to ask the meeting host or your company’s IT department to enable them.
In addition, while under normal circumstances you have a blazing-fast 5G connection, both 5G and 4G/LTE connections can slow down dramatically depending on how many people share the same tower and infrastructure. So if the outage is widespread, your phone data connection will likely creep too as everyone jumps on their phone. Tethering also burns the battery quickly, so if the power goes out, you’ll need a way to top up your phone and laptop.
Tethering from your phone is a good option if outages are rare. But if you rely on the Internet for work and your main connection is unreliable, it’s worth considering a dedicated backup, be it portable or not.
If you tether regularly — either to deal with frequent home outages or to avoid being at the mercy of other people’s Wi-Fi — you might want to consider a portable hotspot device, which can save both your phone’s battery and data caps. can save. The most cost-effective way is to add a hotspot line to your current plan. For example, Verizon customers can get a 15GB hotspot line for $20 a month if they add it to an existing account; the cheapest standalone plan Verizon offers is $60/month. That’s great for the cafe crowd, but if your hotspot is on the same network as your headphones, it’ll have the same network congestion issues during a local outage.
In some places hotspots are a good idea head choice. As telephone companies slowly build out their 5G networks, dedicated hotspots could become viable competitors for DSL, cable and even oversubscribed fiber connections. Where 5G is available and really works, it rivals many residential/apartment broadband speeds. In fact, in rural areas without cable or fiber, 4G or 5G wired internet may be the best option, especially if DSL is the only other option. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all offer wired wireless Internet plans, plus Wi-Fi routers with built-in 4G or 5G radios. If you live in a rural area and haven’t checked your options lately, you may be able to switch to wireless (and keep your DSL for backup, if you really want to).
If you are out of range of cable, fiber optic, and decent wireless internet that allows satellite. Traditional satellite internet is slow and expensive, but can be a vital backup for rural home workers, whose only other option is slow, flaky DSL. Newer satellite options, such as Starlink, include: still expensive but faster, although coverage is not yet available everywhere.
Stay connected away from home
A house breakdown may not be the only reason to get away. Construction noise, visitors, a neighbor with a full drum kit for a jam session in the apartment next door, problems with sanitation or the stark need to get away from distractions – these are all viable reasons to leave if you can find a place with a solid internet connection and a working atmosphere.
It’s a good idea to do a “test break” to find a good spot before you need one. Pack a “bug-out” bag with cables, batteries, chargers, and a sweater (for over-enthusiastic AC) and check out the local options. Libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants are all candidates, but not all will be good places to work a few hours or be willing to accommodate.
If there’s a Starbucks nearby, it’s usually a safe bet. One of Starbucks’ undeniable early advantages in the connected world was near-guaranteed Wi-Fi. Even today it is uncommon to see a Starbucks without at least a few people, laptops open and coffee in hand, using it as a virtual office.
Any coffee shop, board game cafe, or even bakery may or may not want you to camp there. Or they might be happy with your business, especially during off-peak hours. Maybe that great Thai restaurant doesn’t see a lot of customers until late afternoon and doesn’t mind a few permanent employees remotely buying a steady stream of iced coffee and using Wi-Fi. It’s best to ask.
Even if they are welcoming, they may not have publicly available WiFi with decent speeds, and you may have stiff competition for bandwidth with other people logging in and out while you try to work. If they do have Wi-Fi, it can measure whether access to work-critical websites and services is blocked. More about that below.
Make sure you can handle the ambient noise and potential distractions of your temporary workspace. You may need to bring noise-canceling headphones or simple earplugs to avoid being disturbed by careless kids or street noise. And politeness dictates that you don’t contribute too much to the noise. Taking calls, especially video calls, in a public place can be rude, both to your colleagues on the phone and to those around you. (Listening with your mic muted is generally not a problem as long as you’re using headphones.)
If you need a more controlled environment, say you’re on the phone all day or just don’t feel like having Wi-Fi in a coffee shop, co-working spaces offer temporary desk space, meeting rooms, and even private offices for varying prices depending on your needs. Searching for “co-working space” plus your location is your best bet. There are co-working space directories, but many are incomplete or outdated, and the pandemic has freed up a lot of retail space, so options may be available that weren’t there before.
If a cafe is too noisy, a co-working space is too expensive and you only need a few hours of quiet and good unlimited Wi-Fi, consider the public library. Most libraries offer high-speed Internet connections to the community for the price of a (free) library card. Be considerate of the other guests, follow library policies and watch their schedules; there may be after-school activities or other events that can lead to distractions. Depending on the library, it may also be easier to maintain social distancing than at a cafe or restaurant – and masks are more likely to stay on.
Check the WiFi before you need it
Virtually all companies that offer free or guest Wi-Fi use trapped portals to protect, measure and/or monetize access to the Internet. Anytime you’ve connected to a wifi network and had to log in with your room number/email address or even agree to an acceptable usage policy to access the rest of the internet, that’s a captive portal. The captive portal keeps guest devices isolated from the company’s own networks and usually from the other devices on the network. It often also blocks access to peer-to-peer services, VPNs, streaming media, social media, certain websites or types of content, or a combination of the above.
Even though most internet traffic today is encrypted by default, network administrators (or, theoretically, snoops) can still see which websites you visit, if not what you do on them. Using a VPN can keep your traffic private on guest Wi-Fi, and many organizations require an always-on VPN connection to access email — or all the resources of the corporate network.
If your organization needs a VPN, make sure it works on the WiFi you use. If not, see if IT can help you find another way to connect. Even if a VPN isn’t required, it’s a good idea to use a paid VPN to increase your privacy when you’re on someone else’s Wi-Fi. On a work device, use what your employer requires or offers. On a personal device, use a well-paid VPN. If you’re already paying for cloud storage, paid tiers from iCloud and 2TB and above from Google One come with basic VPNs that will do the trick in no time. Depending on your router and the computers you have at home, you can also set up a VPN for your home network.
Of course, tethering – from your phone or a dedicated hotspot – completely bypasses the Wi-Fi problem as long as you have a decent cellular signal.
Whatever your outage plan, test, test, test. There are many ways to get back online if the internet goes down, at home or elsewhere. Whether the solution is a hotspot/tether or a trip to the local library, make sure it works before you need it. When you leave the house, bring a snack and maybe some pain reliever. And in some countries, earplugs are your friend.